The voices were hushed for the most part, with the occasional whoop of triumph that was quickly squelched. Even from fifteen feet away, he could tell they were mostly trying to be quiet for his sake. He had heard Doc go over there and lay down the law earlier.
Through the haze of pain and fever, he knew Doc was hovering. They had fought earlier, Doc demanding that he lie down; him too wired to even sit, much less lie down.
Perkins and Graff had died today along with countless others, needlessly, senselessly. Two battalions fought for this piece of ground over the last several days, and many died. Perkins and Graff had been his, and it was his fault.
Hanley pulled open the surprisingly heavy barn door and let himself in. They had been fortunate to find this place to settle for a couple of days. The nearby town had been decimated in four days of fighting and shelling. There wasn’t even a wine cellar that was still useable as a command post. After flushing it out, they had moved to the outskirts where this was the only building that remained intact in a mile radius around the town.
It was not surprising that this of all buildings would remain standing. It was built as solid as the surrounding countryside itself and was as stalwart as the people who lived here. It was larger than most barns and had apparently been used for fine thoroughbreds and racers. The estate of which the barn was a part had been burned, but the barn, as Hanley suspected was its destiny, survived.
Hanley had not seen combat on this scale since Normandy. The push had proved successful in the end, but the cost had been very high. Two battalions in the area were now trying to regroup. Stragglers had to be gathered, the dead counted, operations had to be reestablished, intelligence had to be gathered and analyzed. For the foot soldier, that meant a temporary respite; always temporary, but nonetheless welcome.
Hanley had staked the claim to the barn early. Parts of his platoon moved in to roost while the latecomers had to bivouac outdoors. They had set up a city of tents and foxholes all around the perimeter of the little town that was no more. The barn was surrounded by friendlies, and well-protected. They could relax.
Hanley moved over to the group of men at the rickety wooden table playing cards, and watched for a few moments. Kirby and Loman were duking it out, the last two in what had apparently turned into a high stakes hand as the pile of bills in the center of the table attested.
Other men were scattered throughout the recesses of the barn, sleeping, smoking, reading, washing socks, cleaning weapons, talking quietly. The mood, while not somber, was nevertheless quiet.
“Hey, Lieutenant. We gonna have to leave?”
Kirby’s question brought Hanley’s attention back to the men at the table. “Don’t worry, Kirby. You still have plenty of time to relieve these guys of all their pay.”
Kirby barked out a laughed. “That’s exactly what I plan to do!”
“You guys seen Saunders?”
Littlejohn pointed to the
corner of the barn farthest from the door.
“Yeah, he’s over there with Doc.”
Hanley made his way around the table and the gallery of observers over to where he saw Doc standing and looking down at something. As he approached, Doc saw him and stepped closer to meet him.
“Sir, you’re not gonna wake him up, are ya? It just took me an hour of arguing to get him to lie down.”
Hanley glanced behind Doc to Saunders who was lying in a stall on a make-shift bed in the pose of a man who had dropped off to sleep unexpectedly and without settling in comfortably.
“What was the argument about?”
“Sir, Sarge hasn’t had a break in three days. He’s been running on pure adrenaline, chain smoking, drinking coffee, not eating. He’s got a fever from that wound on his neck and if I hadn’t made him lie down, he would have fallen down eventually. He just can’t go on like this…”
Hanley rubbed the three-day-old stubble on his chin and nodded as Doc spoke. “Okay, okay, Doc. I get the picture. I’ve been too busy to notice, but I know you’re right. How’s that wound?”
“It’s red and irritated and he has a fever. I cleaned it again real good, but…well, dammit, sir, ain’t nothing gets a chance to heal up if you don’t let the body rest. It wasn’t a bad wound to start with two days ago, but it’s gonna be if he don’t take care of it.”
Hanley could see the stark white bandage and the halo-like clean spot that stood out like a beacon against the three-day accumulation of sweat and grime on Saunders’ neck. “Okay, Doc.” Hanley looked at the medic, noticing for the first time his exhausted features. “Look, you get some rest too, you look beat. Let me know if I can do anything. I’m gonna be here.”
Hanley moved two steps to his right and staked a claim to the stall next to Saunders’. He took off his pack and propped his rifle against the sidewall. A nice pile of hay and a blanket, and his body would feel like it had died and gone to heaven. He noticed that Doc sat down in the straw of the stall next door and leaned against the boards of the far wall. Well, he couldn’t order a man to sleep.
The voices had faded. He was hot and his neck throbbed, but more than that, his arms and legs felt like lead; too heavy to lift, too heavy to move into a more comfortable position, too weak to even roll over. So he stayed.
After the darkness descended, the first thing he was aware of was sound. It wasn’t the whoops and hollers of his poker playing men. It wasn’t even the relentless sounds of war that had become the background music to his life. This was different. It was a sound he had not heard in over two years.
“Chip? Come on, Chip, it’s time to get up. I need you.”
“Mom?” He opened his eyes as he lifted his head, blinking at the unexpected light. She was standing at the door. The dazzling light behind her cast her in silhouette, but the voice was hers. She turned and walked out into the bright light beyond.
He pulled his legs under him and levered up. The unutterable tiredness had vanished. There was no leaden weight, no pain. He reached up to the bandage on his neck and found it unchanged, but he had changed. He felt younger. He felt as if the last two years had fallen away and what was left was his life where he had put it on hold; as if time had frozen and two years of war had not marched by.
Blinking and rubbing his eyes, he moved to the doorway of the barn. It opened onto a tree-lined street. It was fall and most of the colorful leaves were on the ground, but enough remained on the trees to filter the dazzling sunlight.
To the left was the Cornwell’s house and the big oak tree with the tire swing that all of the neighborhood kids had used since he could remember. To the right was Uncle Ned’s house and he swore he could smell pies baking in Aunt Carla’s kitchen.
He stepped through the door and into the yard covered with the red and golden leaves of fall, and heard them crunch as he crushed them underfoot.
He turned and looked behind him, back to the barn, back to the war. It was still there. He could make out Littlejohn’s distinctive frame in the dim light, standing behind Kirby watching the game. Billy, next to Littlejohn as usual, was kibitzing.
“Chip, please, we’re in a hurry!”
He turned back to see his mother and sister carrying large bags and loading them into the back of the Packard. Dad had bought the car just before he died and afterwards, Mom had learned to drive out of necessity.
Louise hurried over to him and thrust two large sacks into his arms. “Here, you take these and I’ll go get the rest. Hurry up, Goon, Mama wants to be there by noon.” Her musical laughter lingered behind her as she turned and ran back to the house. “Goon. Noon,” she repeated as she went.
As he watched her rush away, he marveled at the little girl who was growing up so fast that he was afraid he would miss it. Her long blonde hair, the same shade as his, was pulled back in a ponytail that hung almost to her waist. She disliked the current bobbed styles with the elaborate twists. Styling took too much time and hers was straight as a pin anyway. So she kept her long hair that she had been cultivating since she was five and her brother admired her individualism.
She wore peddle-pusher jeans, white bobby socks and sneakers that used to be red, but had faded to almost pink. He remembered her complaining that Mom washed them too much. She was also wearing one of his shirts. He wondered, not for the first time, what it was about teenage girls that made them want to wear men’s shirts.
He turned back to the street where the old brown Packard was sitting. His mother was arranging the large bags in the back storage area. She wore the same dress she had worn the day she saw him off at the train station. It was midnight blue with eyelet openings on the sleeves. She wore her oversized white pearls. Those were her favorites and she wore them with everything.
He stood beside her patiently, eyes roaming over the familiar street, soaking in the sights and smells; knowing it would soon go away and trying to hold it for as long as he could.
After she finished in the car, his mother turned and took one of the bags; putting it in the place she had left for it, then immediately did the same with the other.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be here, Mom.”
“Of course you are, dear. This is where you really belong. You need to come see us more often.” She was a small, but stout woman. No more than five foot, two. She reached up with her small hand and cupped his cheek. “Chip, I’m so glad you could come. We miss you terribly.”
He gathered her into his arms and buried his face in her neck. “I miss you too, Mom. More than you’ll ever know.” After a moment, he lifted her off her feet and swung her around.
“Chip! You put me down this instant!”
He made one more turn with her before setting her on her feet again. She straightened her dress, and patted her hair back into place. “Well, I’d say you’re keeping fit. Is the army feeding you well, dear?”
He smiled at the innocuous conversation. “Yeah, just fine, Mom. Where are the boys?”
“They’re safe, dear,” she replied enigmatically.
Louise came with two more of the big, non-descript bags and shoved them haphazardly in the trunk. “Do you have to go back, Chip?”
“Yeah, honey, I do.”
“I don’t want you to,” she replied, tears beginning to well up in her cornflower blue eyes.
“I’d stay here if I could.” He turned back to his mother. “Mom, where are the boys? I want to see them before I have to go back.”
“Inside, darling. They’re inside waiting for you.”
He looked back to where the house he grew up in should stand. Instead was the large barn where he had awakened. The neighborhood was unchanged except for the barn.
“We have to go, dear, or we’ll be late. Perkins and Graff are expecting us by noon.”
“It was my fault, Mom.”
“No, dear, it was not your fault. The war killed them. You did everything you could. You always do everything you can, and more. It was not your fault.”
His mother moved briskly to the driver’s side of the car and slid into the driver’s seat. “It wasn’t your fault, Chip and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” She closed the door smartly as if to punctuate the sentence.
Louise stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. “You come back soon, Goon. Mama is lost without you.” She laughed again, “Soon goon,” she said as she went to the passenger side and climbed in beside her mother. The car motor never started. There was no puff of exhaust from the pipe right beside where he stood. It glided silently away from the curb as if on air, and the only sound was the crunching of the dried leaves. Louise hung out the window and waved.
He watched them until they disappeared around the corner a block away and then turned back to the barn. He needed to go back. He belonged there now. He had to finish his job.
The barn door was still open, and inside he had to stop to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. He searched the shadows for his brothers; both younger than him, both more reckless than he ever was. He walked over to the poker table. Kirby and Caje were seated with three others, Littlejohn remained standing behind Kirby, but Billy had left.
“That sister of yours is gonna have to beat ‘em off with a stick, Sarge,” Kirby said as he lit a cigarette while still holding his cards.
“I’m looking for my brothers.”
Littlejohn’s long arm rose and pointed wordlessly to the back corner of the barn, back where the light did not penetrate the shadows. He started for the corner, inexplicably anxious.
Lieutenant Hanley crossed his path and halted his progress. “You need to get some rest, Saunders. Not much time left.”
“My brothers are here. I need to see them.”
Hanley nodded and moved on without another word.
The darker regions of the unusual barn had been artificially lit with oil lanterns. He spotted them talking and laughing together in a stall by the back door. Perkins and Graff looked up and smiled when they saw him. “Chip!” they called in unison.
He sat on a hay bale and studied them. They were his brothers, and yet they were not. He recognized them, he heard their familiar voices and Joey’s infectious laugh, and yet they were also Perkins and Graff who bore no resemblance to the Saunders brothers.
“Mom’s been worried about you, big brother. You should write more,” Joey said.
“You feelin’ okay, Chip? You look…sad, “ Chris said, eyeing his older brother with concern.
“Are you dead?” It was the only thing he could think of to say. Perkins and Graff were dead. His brothers were not as far as he knew.
They both laughed. Finally Chris regained his composure and said, “No, Chip, we’re just fine. You’re talkin’ to us ain’t ya? Those guys are okay, too. You can rest easy about them. They are okay,” Chris said, his voice exuding a maturity beyond his years.
“Rest easy…rest easy…you’re okay…”
He was hot. He reached up to his neck where the heat seemed to concentrate but a hand stopped his and held it. “Rest easy, Sarge. It’s okay, but you need to leave the bandage alone.”
After a moment he felt his head lifted and a metal cup pressed to his lips. He drank greedily until he was breathless. His head was lowered back to the rolled up blanket on which it had rested.
“How you feel, Sarge?” Doc asked, worry and exhaustion coloring his words.
He closed his eyes and was asleep again before he could answer. This time, it was dreamless, healing and restful.”
The next time Saunders opened his eyes; it was daylight. The barn doors at both ends were open; men were coming and going, some in various stages of undress. A makeshift laundry had been set up in the center of the big open area.
He reached up and rubbed his eyes which felt sticky and swollen. In fact, his overall impression was being sticky, dirty and not terribly fragrant. He rose up on his elbows and surveyed the stall where he had remembered having a shouting match with Doc.
Doc was sitting against the wall, eyes closed, apparently dozing while sitting straight up.
“Hey, Doc! He’s awake!” Kirby was on the opposite wall, but scooted over on his butt when he realized Saunders was up.
“How ya doin’, Sarge?”
“What time is it?” Sarge asked as if he hadn’t heard the question.
Someone to his left chuckled. “You should be asking what day it is.” That was Hanley. He moved closer and was now stooping near Saunders’ feet.
By this time Doc had moved closer and had a hand on his forehead. Sarge instinctively reached up and batted it away. “Cool as a cucumber,” Doc said with a grin.
“What do you mean ‘what day’?” Saunders asked irritably.
They all looked around at each other. Finally the collective gaze fell to Doc. “Well, uh, you’ve been sleeping for over a day, Sarge. We were kinda wonderin’ if you just didn’t want our company.” He winked at the others and smiled.
His strength waning, he dropped back to the straw bed. “A day?” he whispered incredulously. He couldn’t ever remember sleeping for that long before. His hand automatically moved to the wound on his neck, feeling the crisp bandage. Pressing on it caused only a little pain.
“It’s doing a lot better now. You had a pretty bad fever there for awhile, but it broke real early this morning. You’re gonna be just fine. You just needed some rest.”
Saunders’ blue eyes wandered over and met Doc’s equally blue ones. “Just like you were trying to tell me,” he conceded.
Doc held up his hand. “Fergit it, Sarge,” he interjected, interrupting the apology that may or may not be coming. “Maybe next time you’ll listen to your ol’ family doctor.”
“How long we gonna be here, Lieutenant?”
“’Til tomorrow morning. We move out for Vernaise at dawn. You hungry? There’s a hot chow truck out there,” he cocked his head toward the open barn door.
“Yeah. In a minute.” Saunders rose up on one elbow preparing to get up.
“Okay you guys, let’s give the man some room, “ Hanley’s lieutenant’s voice back at full volume. “Caje, Kirby, I need both of you for a little detail. Outside.”
The men, all except Doc rose and left the little stall. Doc put an arm behind Saunders’ shoulders and helped him to sit.
“Thanks, Doc. For everything.”
“You had some good dreams last night I think. “
Saunders glanced up, surprised, embarrassed, then instantly composed. “Yeah, I guess. Pretty weird, too.”
“That was probably the fever.”
Saunders stood up with help, a little shaky on his feet, but once up, he felt better with every passing second. He was remarkably refreshed; the heavy blanket of exhaustion had been lifted, along with the blanket of self-imposed despair.
“There’s a shower outside. After that and a hot meal, you’ll feel like a new man,” Doc said as if reading Saunders’ mind.
Saunders’ put an arm briefly around Doc’s shoulder and gave a quick nod. He made his way stiffly out of the barn and out into the bright fall day, feeling more renewed with every step.
His trip “home” was the balm that soothed the soul ravaged by too much war, and too much death. This was France, not home, but home would still be waiting when he got there again.